Melyssa Lombardi was bailing water from the start of her maiden voyage as the Oregon softball coach.
Star players abandoned ship one by one during the excruciating transition after Lombardi was hired to replace Mike White.
The Ducks were left without an active catcher on the roster when transfer Terra McGowan’s appeal to play in 2019 was denied by Arizona State.
Jordan Dail was the only scholarship pitcher left when Maddie MacGrandle quit mid-season.
With so many gaping holes to fill, the defending Pac-12 champions sank to the bottom of the standings.
Oregon finished 22-30 overall (5-19 Pac-12), the program’s worst season since 2009 when the Kathy Arendsen era ended with a 16-34 (3-18 Pac-10) campaign.
The Ducks, who hosted NCAA super regionals the past six seasons, finished 4-13 at Jane Sanders Stadium after losing their final seven home conference games.
During a postgame news conference following Sunday’s 12-4 defeat to Arizona State in the season finale, Lombardi was upbeat about the future of the program.
Her promising young group learned to swim against an unforgiving current.
“It was a tough on me for sure,” Lombardi said. “The spring was tough at times, not knowing if we were going to have someone to pitch, not knowing, if somebody’s out because of an injury, who’s going to play that position.
“But every time it got tough, somebody on this team stepped up and said, ‘I got you. It’s OK.’”
As Jordan Dail promised, her arm did not fall off.
However, the sophomore left-hander’s production fell off dramatically down the stretch as she racked up 39 starts. Dail finished with an 18-18 record and a 4.12 earned-run average with 248 innings pitched.
Lombardi promises help is on the way. Oregon will likely use the NCAA transfer portal, which drained the program of talent last winter, to replenish the pitching depth.
The incoming recruiting class also includes Marist star infielder/pitcher Ariel Carlson and pitcher Makenna Kliethermes from Wardsville, Mo.
“Jordan has pitched all year. She’s run out of gas. She’s hitting the gas pedal, and there’s not a whole lot coming out,” Lombardi said after Dail gave up four home runs in her final outing. “Jordan’s future is unbelievably bright, and I can’t wait. It’s about the fight.
“I promise you when you see Jordan next year and you see her absolutely getting it done and she’s stronger and mentally tougher and is rested and all those good things, it’s because of what she went through this year. This year is paving the road for what’s next.”
Haley Cruse, the only starter from White’s dynamic lineup at the Women’s College World Series last year who chose to return, emerged as a leader for Lombardi and a mentor for the freshmen.
The junior center fielder led the Ducks with a .348 batting average and was second on the team in runs (31) and hits (49).
During her final appearance in the lineup Friday, Cruse made what appeared to be a home run-stealing grab at the top of the wall.
“I think this year is really about coming together and figuring out our identity as a team and a program,” Cruse said. “Change is always difficult, but I think that we’ve brought in a lot of talented people this year.”
Three freshmen — second baseman Allee Bunker, shortstop Jasmine Sievers and third baseman Rachel Cid — established themselves as dependable everyday players Lombardi can rebuild around.
“There was a lot learned this year,” senior April Utecht said. “We’re a very young team, and through these next four years with everyone coming through this program, it’s going to go up. Coach Lombardi is a great coach. The staff behind her, they know what they’re doing.
“Version one is done. We’re on to version two. They’re going to do some big things next year.”
Cid (8.40 ERA) and Cruse (10.50 ERA), who had not pitched since junior high school, were both called on to relieve a weary Dail at times this season. Freshman walk-on Kailey Krueger (1-5, 7.93 ERA) also made 15 appearances.
Sophomore Shaye Bowden filled in admirably at catcher following the transfer of projected starter Mary Iakopo and McGowan being ruled ineligible.
“This team will always be known for their fight and putting the team before themselves,” Lombardi said. “You see that with Rachel Cid on the mound and Haley on the mound. You see Kailey, who pitched last May for her high school team, on the mound.
“You see all these guys moving all over the place on defense. They don’t care. They just want to give the team an opportunity to win, so if they have to move to multiple positions, they’ll do that.”
Bunker (.347, 13 RBIs) and Cid (.260, 31 RBIs) started all 52 games. Sievers (.326, 22 RBIs) missed seven games due to injury but was selected to the all-Pac-12 first team. Bowden led the team with 33 RBIs.
“I’ve definitely grown as a player myself, and I know a lot of other people have,” Bowden said. “The freshmen had to step up into a bigger role this year. They’ve done a great job doing it.
“We’re not satisfied with how we did this year. We know we have a lot more to come and we have a big future ahead of us.”
Lombardi honored two senior starters, Utecht and Cherish Burks, on Saturday. A pair of touted utility players, Daijah Pangilinan of Vallejo, Calif., and Vallery Wong of Sacramento, are signed to play for the Ducks in 2020.
“It’s been rewarding. And you could go, ‘Hmm, how?’” Lombardi said. “It has because I appreciate the athletes that stayed and wanted to fight for each other and fight for this program and have the same expectation we’ve had since day one. That was really important to me.”
Oregon lost nine players before the season, including 2018 Pac-12 pitcher of the year Megan Kleist. Four players (Miranda Elish, Lauren Burke, Shannon Rhodes and Iakopo) transferred to Texas and three more starters (Maggie Balint, Alexis Mack and Mia Camuso) left days before the season opened.
Adding injury to the insult — senior Darya Kaboli-Nejad suffered a torn ACL during a preseason practice.
Lombardi, a longtime Oklahoma assistant, welcomed six walk-ons, including senior soccer player Bayley Bruner, to help patch the leaks.
“I don’t know if I would compare seasons I’ve had in the past to this season. Nothing compares to this season,” Lombardi said. “You need to look and really realize what this group has gone through. I have a week and a half before the season starts and I’m adding six additional athletes. I’m not adding six athletes my years at Oklahoma. It’s totally different.
“I don’t know another team that would fight the way this team has fought. And all the adversity that this team has dealt with, others would say, ‘You know what? This is too much, I can’t handle this'.”